[27 May 2014]
When your band has a songwriter as talented and inventive as Brian Wilson, why do you record covers? “I’m So Young”, the second cover song featured on The Beach Boys Today!, serves a very different purpose than “Do You Wanna Dance?” As we saw in our discussion of the latter, that track was used to show off Wilson’s creativity and skill as a producer and arranger. By taking a familiar song as a starting point, Wilson’s extensive changes to the track could stand out as impressive displays of his budding genius. But the arrangement of “I’m So Young”—originally recorded by the Students in 1958 and covered by the Ronettes in 1964—doesn’t change much.
So, if not to flex his creative muscles by tampering with someone else’s song, why cover “I’m So Young”? We have to assume that something about this song resonated with Wilson and the rest of the band to be worthy of inclusion. Especially in the context of side two of this album, which was conceived of as a collection of Wilson’s sophisticated, introspective ballads, “I’m So Young” must have felt personal enough to him to want to record. And when we look at the lyrics and the recording history of the song, it’s clear to see how the song reflects Wilson’s own fears and anxieties at the time.
The song is lyrically very simple. The narrator is young and in love with a girl who “says I’m her only one”, but their parents won’t let them get married. The chorus pleads and whines immaturely, lamenting, “I’m, I’m, I’m so young!” The choice of the first person singular is interesting here because in the verses, he sings “we”, but for the chorus—the real emotional outpouring of the song— he shifts to “I”. Perhaps this is another sign of selfish immaturity. In the first verse, he sings, “They say our love is just a teenage affection”, and although he disagrees, he similarly treats the marriage as now-or-never in the second verse, when he sings about how he’ll soon go away and “their mother’s baby will have seen the last of me”.
The song was first recorded by the Beach Boys in September of 1964, a few months before Wilson and Marilyn Rovell got married. Although Wilson was in his 20s by then, Rovell was just 17, and the fear that they were too young was likely very real for them. On the surface, then, this song seems to contrast “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)”. Rather than being worried about growing up, the characters here seem to worry about being young. But on a deeper level, especially when thought about in the context of Wilson’s personal life at the time, “I’m So Young” is equally anxious about the future. He may say that he wants to get married, and he may mean it, but one gets the sense that he is worried that their parents are right: they are too young.
Wilson has said that the Beach Boys’ version was modeled on Phil Spector’s production for the Ronettes more than the original. But in both the first 1964 recording and the 1965 recording that eventually made it onto Today!, there is a clear debt to both. The original starts with a guitar playing through the chords of the verse, which is then joined by wordless vocal harmonies before starting the lyrics in an out-of-tempo opening phrase. The Ronettes’ version, though, starts right on this out-of-tempo phrase and the Beach Boys versions follow this structure, as well as adopting the more lushly embellished chords throughout the track. But the Beach Boys covers also feel small and intimate like the Students’ take, in contrast to the overblown wall-of-sound style on Spector’s production. Also, the Ronettes changed the lyrics in the second verse in addition to changing the title from “I’m So Young” to, simply, “So Young”. The Beach Boys kept both the original title and lyrics.
Their first take of the song features flourishes of melodramatic flute throughout along with a clunkier vocal arrangement and amateurish drum banging from Dennis Wilson. So it was wise for the group to rerecord the song in January of 1965, the last track recorded for the album. This updated version has an elegant vocal intro, a more subdued lead from Brian Wilson, and a refined instrumental arrangement. While the first version sounds like an attempt to capture the grandiosity of Spector’s arrangement, the album version is much more reflective of the mood in the lyrics. We saw on “Please Let Me Wonder” the beginnings of Brian’s own arranging style, out of the shadow of Phil Spector, and “I’m So Young” continues that trend.
But the rerecording of the song is also interesting in light of Brian’s personal life; he and Rovell were married in December of 1964, in between the first and the final recording of the Beach Boys’ “I’m So Young”. Does their marrying mean that Wilson overcame his fears and anxieties over their age and the future they would have? Or does the inclusion of the song on their album, and the imperative to rerecord it and make sure it was right, mean that he was still having these feelings?
The major innovation Brian Wilson brought to the song, in both versions, is his ending. The original Students song and the Ronettes’ cover end at the final chorus, but Wilson adds a new outro to the song, with ornate vocal counterpoint and a soaring falsetto part. The vocal writing is so distinctly Beach Boys and so evocative of the melancholic tone of the song that there are few moments as wonderful on the whole album. Even if “I’m So Young” was not penned by Wilson and Mike Love like the rest of the songs on The Beach Boys Today!, it fits perfectly into the anxious, contemplative mood of the album, and the simple elegance of the arrangement makes it a real stand-out track.